- Altered States of Preservation: Preservation by OMA/AMO
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Preservation was the title of OMA/AMO's 1 main contribution to the Twelfth Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale (29 August through 21 November 2010). Rem Koolhaas, the practice principal and founder, was awarded the Biennale's Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, and he continues to surprise us with his foresight. Always at the forefront of the architectural debate at the Biennale, Koolhaas's attention concentrates on the existing, on the traces and remainders of past and present architectures (as well as nonarchitectures, or, more generally, the built environment) that the designer has to confront today, ubiquitously, on different scales and with different cultural and intellectual approaches. While at the pre-Great-Recession Venice Architecture Biennale of 2006 OMA/ AMO had shown master plans for new islands in the Persian Gulf, in 2010 the global practice concentrated on a given world of near and remote pasts, on which today's architects are called to express judgement. The scenario in which architects operate today—which might be dubbed the "new old"—is a palimpsest of different thicknesses and resiliences possibly subject to violent erasures and heretical insertions. 2
Inside the Palazzo delle Esposizioni—in the same rooms occupied in 2006 by Dubai's optimistic developments prior to the financial crisis—OMA/AMO presented a vision for the future of the past that challenges chronologies and questions established definitions of architectural preservation. While the theme of preservation is (relatively) new for OMA, the approach and the presentation styles used here are signature OMA: from the manifesto (on this occasion, AMO's redefinition of contemporary "preservation"); to rich visuals of the practice's projects cleverly mixed with photographic documentation of the existing; to sharp slogan-like captions and quotations; to graphically striking statistics, graphs, and time charts; to a fetishistic, metonymic collection of rescued furniture and found objects.
Unlike OMA's other visual arguments, branding narratives, and cultural provocations, this sensitive subject, which OMA'S exhibition only superficially skims, is complex, multifaceted, and deadly serious. It is not only the survival of built structures that is of concern here, or indeed that of the architectural discipline itself—long probed, challenged, pulled, and stretched in all directions by OMA/AMO in recent years (the practice's palindromic acronym a telling symptom of their fluidity of [End Page 97]
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approach to a professional role in constant redefinition). What is at stake here is the survival of the whole world as we know it, and us with it. But the concern in OMA's vision remains specifically architectural. No green or otherwise-colored visions are proposed but rather a polemical reality check that exposes a "now" engulfed in strategies of preservation that are more politics and market driven than they are the expression of environmental (and environmentalist) or cultural and architectural concerns.
Organized in two rooms, the exhibition proposes different interpretations of the topic of preservation. The first room documents the "conditions found by OMA upon arrival at sites of possible preservation, 1969-2010" 3 and offers a sampling of OMA's past and present interventions on the existing. The selected works vary in scale, purpose, and chronology: from the 1980 study for the renovation of the Koepel Panopticon prison in Arnhem; to the vast orange cushion for the lift space of the 1998 Maison à Bordeaux, declared a French "monument historique" in 2001 and reduced to an "empty vessel" after the death of its owner; to the original furniture of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, currently undergoing strategic renovation by OMA and Herzog and de Meuron; to glass and miniatures from the curatorially re-master planned Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg (2008-14); to the books containing the current "cultural master plan" and concept design for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, reinvented as "a culturally programmed department store (2010)."
This first exhibition room opens questions. This time, Koolhaas's retroactive manifesto is not applied to the found...